The first time I remember doing it, I was just a kid. We were in a Summer track program. And, somebody was making fun of her. Laughing at her and calling her “retarded.” And, I was spitting mad. I mean, furious. I remember wanting to physically fight for her. Instead, I yelled at them and told them she was my sister and to “shut up!” And, if you know me now or if you knew me as a child, rather, you would know, I was as mild-mannered as they come. But, those were fighting words and for her I would fight. Her name is Melinda.
She is my big sister. I didn’t know she was different. I didn’t know that expectations would be different for her than me. That she would always live with our parents. That she would grow up and be more childlike than not. That she would always be my biggest fan. All I knew was that she was my older sister, my best friend, my entertainment and my family. I don’t remember ever being told that Melinda had Down syndrome. It was just a part of her and totally normal for our family. She was eight years old when I was born. In some ways, she thinks of me as hers. And, I think of her as mine.
Her response to hearing the r-word, either said around her or, on the rare occasion, about her, is always the same,”I’m not retarded. I’m a brain-injured woman!” She would say this when she was twelve. She’s forty-two years old now and this is still her response. It definitely gets a laugh, but I also think it teaches a lesson. If someone like Melinda hears the word and is offended, why do we use it?
I’ve always felt passionate about the issue. When I was in college I started hearing it more and more in pop culture. It was used in movies and by young stars. At that time, if I was around someone who used the r-word, I would say something. It’s not like I expected them to feel the same way I did. But, I thought that I could educate people one-by-one and make a difference. I think it worked. I never wanted to make people feel guilty, so I would try to be happy and casual in my response. For example, I might say “oh, I’m totally not a fan of that word. My sister has Down’s.” Or, “that is one of my least favorite words. It’s one of the few words still being said that should be on the ‘not politically correct’ list.” Or, “you know, that is the one word that I hope people will stop saying.” Usually, it would lead to a nice discussion. And, most of the time, I would never hear that person use the word again. Or, if I did they would tell me they were trying to get out of the habit.
When I lived in Los Angeles, it was the same experience. My friends were mostly professionals, college-educated, and many were in the music business or movie business. It was easy to share my story with them and to talk about Melinda. Most people when they think about it, really think about it, understand why the word shouldn’t be used to describe something that doesn’t work or in a self-deprecating way to call yourself stupid. It’s hurtful to a group of our population that can’t easily defend themselves. But, it is also hurtful to those who love them. And, it is unnecessary. There are so many other words that we can use instead.
Melinda has always made friends with my friends. She’s hilarious. She’s witty. She’s loving and she’s never met a stranger in her life. My high school friends were her friends. My college friends adore her and her them. My Los Angeles friends and co-workers are the same way. One time Melinda came by herself to visit me in LA. We all did karaoke together, went to Disneyland and the beach and had the best time. My boss, a well-know Public Relations Exec in Beverly Hills, even hired her to “clean the office” for a couple of hours. She loved it! She’s awesome. She deserves better than the people of the world using the r-word incessantly with no thought whatsoever of who they are hurting.
I got the shock of my life after interviewing for public relations jobs in Houston, accepting a position and starting my new job. As soon as the interview process was done and I was officially an employee, it started…the endless and continuous use of the r-word by nearly everyone in the office. They used it to describe themselves when they were unhappy with their performances. And, they used it to describe their laptop when it didn’t work as it should. They used it to describe their driving when driving like a bat-out-of-hell. And, they used the word regularly in front of clients. All of these were work settings. And, to me, at least, all of these circumstances were extremely inappropriate times to use this word. I had heard it said before. But, never in professional settings. And, never by anyone in the PR industry in Los Angeles/ Beverly Hills. I was appalled and completely shocked. But, it is the next part of the story that shocked me more than anything. I believed that once I met with my boss(es) and told them about Melinda and told them how I found the word to be extremely offensive, they would realize the error of their ways and institute a new “no r-word policy” at work. Yes, I was nervous to meet with them and I tried my very best to present it in a way so they wouldn’t feel judgment from me. I just wanted to further educate them and I thought, especially in the public relations industry, they would be sensitive to words that are not politically correct and not socially acceptable. Even if society is still catching up, I believed people in the PR business would want to present themselves and their clients in the best light. Excessive use of the r-word, in my opinion, is not the best light. It’s nowhere near the best light.
I met with my female boss first, and then the male boss. I had heard them both use the word too many times to count. But, they weren’t my friends, they were my bosses, my “new” bosses. And, I was extremely thoughtful in my approach, knowing I should talk with them privately and not in front of any of my co-workers. That is what I did. It was awful. I originally thought that I would talk to her first and that I would never need to talk to anyone else at the company about it. But, since she didn’t offer a resolution that involved banning the use of the r-word in the work place or even toning the use of the word down, I couldn’t let it lie. The next morning I met with the boss of the company. He was already aware of my concern, as she had filled him in the evening before. He had time to think it over and prepare a response before we met. His response was unbelievable to me at the time and it still is. He was defiant and defensive of the right of all of the employees and our superiors to use the r-word freely and as often as they would like. What!?!? Seriously? This was a company that specialized in public relations and who proudly wanted to alienate a large part of our public by using a word that is offensive to them and their loved ones. We continued to discuss the matter. But, in the end, I was left with a choice, stay and work in this environment which I believed was now hostile toward me or stand up for Melinda and no longer work there.
I chose Melinda and every other mentally-challenged person I knew and everyone who loves them. I chose to stand up and to move on. This choice meant that I wouldn’t have a conventional job for the next seven years and counting. It changed the entire course of my life, freeing me up to do what I’m meant to do, as I prepare now to record my first full-length Christian worship album. Who knows what would have happened had I stayed there? But, I know I did the right thing. And, I have no regrets.
For more information and to pledge not to use the R-Word visit: R-Word, Spread the Word to End the Word http://r-word.org/
|Rebekah and Melinda|
A song I wrote inspired by Melinda, my Momma and all who have struggles in life where holding tight to God’s promises is the only way we can breathe. This is for you. Photos and videos and home videos from my grandmother, now in heaven. The song is “Your Promises” from the album, Radiant You by Rebekah Maddux El-Hakam. smarturl.it/radiantyou